Political Art of M.T. Liggett
M.T. Liggett insists that he's not angry with anybody.
"I have a very different kinda outlook on life," he says. "You can't make me mad. Only me can make me mad."
Whoever is responsible for M.T. Liggett's outlook, he expresses it with art: hundreds of flapping, whirling, and static metal sculptures set on poles -- some are 20 feet tall -- along the fence line of US Highway 400, just west of tiny Mullinville, Kansas. Liggett was born here in 1930 and, aside from some years in the military, has lived here all of his life.
He works in an old barn with a dirt floor, around the corner from his pasture gallery. His tools are a plasma arc cutter and an arc welder. His material is metal: junked farm machinery, car parts, road signs, railroad equipment. "If I just think of something, I make it," he explains, chalking the design on the metal, then setting to work with the plasma torch. "You draw it out, cut it out, and that's it."
M.T. -- an adopted name that some say stands for "Moon Tosser" -- does not play the part of a whimsical folk artist. He is a big man with ill-tempered gray hair; large, weather-beaten hands; and a sharp, gruff voice that's surprisingly high for someone so sizable. His speech is blunt, his attitude is cantankerous and contrary, his bib overalls are dark with metal grit and rust. He looks like he should be on a tractor.
"When I put up a piece of art, I don't ever ask anybody if they like it or they don't like it," he declares. "If you like it, that's fine. If you don't, I don't care."
There are some who do not like M.T. Liggett's art. Or, rather, they don't like some of M.T. Liggett's art. Everyone enjoys his windmills, gyros, and whirligigs, spinning and flashing in the prairie wind and Kansas sun. Almost everyone appreciates his fanciful creations: his grinning dogs, ancient gods, a smiling pumpkin, a giant dung beetle, chickens wearing boots, and imaginary creatures that seem tailored to the metal, rather than the other way around. Most folks even enjoy his many exaggerated representations of his former girlfriends, such as "Tokyo Rose," a blond who he met on the Tokyo Ginza when he was in the Navy, and Marilee, "the honey-haired enchantress."
Where Liggett runs into trouble is with his opinionated -- but not angry -- political art. He calls these "totems," but really they're political cartoons, carved in metal: human caricatures with long, warty noses, buck teeth, pot bellies, giant feet, and balloon butts. None of them are flattering.
Here's Vice-President Joseph Biden, labeled by Liggett on accompanying signs as a "sycophantic plagiarist" and "worthless bastard." Over there is Hillary Clinton, "Our Jack-Booted Eva Braun," depicted as a swastika with arms and legs, holding aloft a communist hammer and sickle. A sculpture titled "Right Wing Republican" is a man with his thumb up his ass; a depiction of James Carville, advisor to former President Clinton, is labeled "Political Whore," and "Bill Clinton's white boy Cajun procurer." Underneath is the epithet, "You're a pimp, stupid."
"They're not angry," Liggett again insists of his sculptures. "If you would just stop and look at 'em and read 'em and look at the intent behind them, you'll see they're not angry."
We looked again. "Evolution is wrong," declares another of his signs. "Only a miracle from the Almighty could have created the moronic dumbasses on the Kansas State Board of Education."
Putting aside intent, is M.T. Liggett worried that people might be offended by, say, his rendering of former attorney general Janet Reno as the "Bitch of Buchenwald," with her head torn off and shoved up her ass? "Absolutely not," says Liggett, who favors the emphatic phrase. "It doesn't bother me the slightest bit" (Reno is singled out for her role in the Waco massacre of the Branch Davidians).
Despite Liggett's gruff posturing, he is proud of his art and enjoys being appreciated for it. If you admire it long enough from the roadside, he may even drive out in his old Ford pickup to look you over. This is a dark thrill, like unexpectedly encountering a wild bear or a killer elephant: you don't want to leave, but you don't want to get in his way and piss him off, either.
We got in M.T.'s way through our usual clumsiness, by asking stupid questions -- such as why he doesn't have any caricatures of George W. Bush in his iron menagerie (Just a big metal square with a "W" cut through above "Dubya.")
"I don't got nothing to do with George W. Bush," he declared. "Period." Does he plan to put up any more George W. Bush art? "No. Absolutely not."
M.T. Liggett has slowed his production in recent years ("Hell, I just got out of the hospital," he told us.) and continues to endure occasional sour relations with his neighbors ("That'll always be. But that's their problem, not mine."). He's not going anywhere any time soon, and as long as he can heft iron and grip an arc welder he will make art and put it out by Highway 400. Just don't try to read anything into it, or him.
"I'm not a Libertarian. I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat," he insists. "I don't have any agenda." So why do people try to find one in his art? Liggett struggles to explain. "The problem is, I grab ideas right out of the blue."
"I'm not looking for notoriety whatsoever," he added. "Most people, they want to look for fame and fortune and to be recognized. Bottom line: I really don't care."